I am always being asked what China is like and I usually freeze in response to that question.  I could tell them that I went to three or four places in China and that they were all as different from each other as Seattle is from Kalamazoo or New York, but that would make me sound really condescending and it would not give the person asking the question any more of a clue. Or I could just say something about how China is big and crowded and then let them respond as to how they knew that, but that would not achieve anything either.

So my trick is to say that I spent much of my time in Qingdao and it is really more like Seattle than you would ever imagine. Half of the people say “really” and move on and the other half start asking questions to learn more.  

But what really frustrates me is how difficult it is to convey how China “can be simultaneously so rich and so poor, so strong and so fragile, so advanced and so undeveloped, so controlled and so chaotic….” James Fallows, one of my (and everyone else’s) favorite writers on China, just did a short article for Atlantic, entitled, “Imagining What China Looks Like.” In this article, Fallows talks about how tough it is to convey China to those who have never been:

My standard “learning to live with China” pitch includes exhortations for foreigners actually to go and spend serious time there — and as much time as possible away from Shanghai and Beijing and other cities with superficially “familiar”-seeming areas. The reason is that the place is so huge, so varied, and so contradictory that, unless you have much more robust imaginative powers than I do, it’s hard really to sense how it can be simultaneously so rich and so poor, so strong and so fragile, so advanced and so undeveloped, so controlled and so chaotic, without seeing for yourself.

He then assumes not all readers will immediately be heading to China on his advice and provides links to two excellent articles that help (at least a bit) in conveying what China is like. These articles do this not by talking about China as a whole, but by focusing on small parts of it.

The first is a Boston Globe article, “Landslides strike Zhouqu County, China,” replete with “riveting” photographs of the recent mudslides there. Fallows comment on the photographs makes sense:

Obviously pictures like the one below aren’t the “normal” look of inland China; this is disaster and its aftermath, reminiscent of the look of Sichuan province after the horrific earthquake two years ago. But when you hear about some inland Chinese city whose name is unfamiliar but is bigger than Chicago, this gives an idea (minus floodwaters) of how the cityscape might look. 

The other is an article in Foreign Policy by Christina Larsen, entitled, “Chicago on the Yangtze: Welcome to Chongqing, the biggest city you’ve never heard of.” 

If you want a better “feel” for China, I urge you to check out James Fallows’ article and to follow the links. 

  • those pictures are amazing, Chongqing is quite a thing to behold.

  • greg

    I failed to understand what is the point that James Fallow is trying to make by referring to the horrific Zhouqu pictures, particularly along with the media headlines of China surpassing Japan as the world’s second largest economy.
    If the point is to contrast Shanghai or even Chongqing cityscape with that of Zhouqu under normal circumstance, I can understand completely. But the pictures from Zhouqu are mostly human suffering and destruction due to the landslide and its aftermath. Is this supposed to show the “backward” side of China or something else?
    I don’t want to speculate too much about Fallow’s motive, but these pictures are really not helping make his points …

  • What’s your take on the news that China is now officially the world’s second largest economy? Based on all the information we’ve had in the last few years about China’s economic rise, I kind of already assumed that that was the case, but apparently I was mistaken.

  • WFJ

    Thanks for running this, with the links. I have been to Shanghai and Beijing and Shenzhen many times, but I am always looking to learn more about “the real” China beyond its first tier cities. The photos were amazing.

  • I’m not entirely convinced that those pictures of Chongqing with lovely blue sky are really the best way to get an “accurate” picture of what the city usually looks like! Always good to see articles like these though…

  • wai guo ren

    Been to China more than ten times… so I can say something. FWIW.
    Imagine New York towards the end of the nineteenth century. The industrial revolution is underway, lots of semi-literate immigrants everywhere with pushcarts and ratty clothing, super-rich robber barons abound, lots of insider trading, political corruption to the Nth degree…
    A taste of China.

  • That Foreign Policy piece was terrible, really zero quality me too journalism.
    In my answer to the “What’s China like” question, I find it useful to note that China is geographically bigger than Europe and just as diverse. Even though people have heard the 1.3 billion number, numbers don’t mean anything. People think of it as a country, unified and knowable as a European country might be. Move them to thinking about it as a continent, and you’ve won half the battle.

  • @ Phil,
    You make a valid point from a European point of view; but from a North American (and particularly Canadian, as I am) point of view, not so much. Canada, after all, is actually larger (geographically) than China. And both Canada and the U.S. are larger than any European nation. In fact, for me, I have no problem wrapping my head around the idea of China as a country; what I have problems with is wrapping my head around the idea that a “country” is something you can drive across in less than a day.
    Personally, I’ve lived in China for 17 years. I’ve lived in four cities (Qingdao, Shanghai, Beijing, and currently in Dongguan); and have started a non-profit organization to help one of the minority groups in Yunnan, the Mosuo (who live in one of the most remote and undeveloped regions of China). I’m fairly confident in saying that I’ve pretty much seen it all.
    As such, I don’t think that the question of whether people see it as a ‘country’ or a ‘continent’ makes much difference; what people need to understand is the phenomenal diversity within China. And not just geographic diversity, or economic diversity, but also generational diversity. A 20-year old Chinese person is likely to be very different from a 40-year year old, and radically different than a 60-year old.
    Those who take the time — I’d suggest at least half a year to a year — to learn about China, and its people, before engaging in any serious commitments, will find their time well invested. Yeah, its possible to do business here without that, but odds are that A) it will go much slower, with many more mistakes, and B) you’ll find yourself relying on others who DO have the experience/,knowledge you lack, which really places you in a disadvantageous position…you’re not the driver, you’re more of a passenger, telling others where you want to go, but having to rely on them to get you there.